Advocacy Tips to Change School Board Policies on Free Speech Issues

The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the importance of free speech in public schools. In the landmark decision Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the Court established a baseline standard for speech restrictions in schools: “where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would ‘materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,’ the prohibition cannot be sustained.” 
Generally, to prohibit the expression of an opinion, a school district must show the prohibition was not motivated by a desire to avoid discomfort or unpleasantness, or else this action likely violates the First Amendment. To constitutionally restrict protected speech, the district must be able to show that the speech it seeks to prohibit substantially interferes with the educational process. Speech simply being controversial and causing serious discussion outside of school or class does not give a government body grounds for censorship. 
Now that you know more about how free speech is protected in schools, you are better prepared to advocate to your local school board or district if these rights are being infringed upon. Continue reading below for additional guidelines and resources related to school board advocacy.  
To advocate with your school board, you should: 

1. Learn about your district's policies  

What are your school district policies? 

Public schools in Washington state must follow the guidelines outlined above. Check your school district’s website for policies and procedures related to students. 
Teachers in public schools also have protected free speech rights, but there are limitations, especially for a K-12 teacher. Find more information here.  
[Download]: Questions about free speech policies to submit to schools, school boards, and school districts 
[Download]: A sample Public Records Act request for free speech issues in schools 


2. Develop Strategies to Influence School Board Members  

In Washington, school district policy decisions are made by an elected board of directors, commonly called a “school board.” 
[Download]: Introduction to school boards 
If you want to change school district policies, you’ll have to convince your school board to work with you. School board officials, like all elected officials, work for the public in their district. As a parent or community member, you have a right to make your voice heard! Some of the ways you can influence school board decisions include: 

Serving on a school board committee or workgroup 

Many school boards, particularly in larger districts, have committees and workgroups that give the school board advice or make recommendations about particular issues. School board directors are often eager to hear from parents who volunteer their time. 
If you are interested in working on a particular issue, you should contact school board members and offer to participate in any workgroups on the issue. You can also reach out to the superintendent to offer to volunteer.  

Meeting with individual school board members 

Meeting directly with an individual school board member can be an excellent way to get their perspective on the issue and provide more information. Many school board members will take the time to meet with parents or community members in small groups.  
Some tips for those meeting: 
  • Ask to meet to talk about a specific topic. Be clear about what you want the school board to do.  Change a particular policy? Introduce a new program or better support an existing one? Include parents in decisions about a particular issue? 
  • Identify your most important points: Pick a few points that you think are the most important for the school board member and write them down! 
  • Talk about your personal connection to the issue: Parents and community members have a lot of expertise to bring to school board members. Telling personal stories about the impact of board policies has a lot of impact, and it can also help board members understand the impact of their policies. In addition, parents and community members can share their expertise about the best solutions to the challenges in the school. 
  • Consider bringing others with you: If you have set up an individual meeting with a board member, bringing more than four or five people can be hard to manage. Sometimes, a one-on-one conversation will be most effective. If you decide to bring others, keep it small, and bring people who represent different groups that have an interest in the issue. Let the board member know ahead of time how many people will attend the meeting. 
  • Follow up with a letter or testimony to the whole board: Even if you’ve spoken to each school board member individually, it’s always helpful to present your points officially to the entire school board through a letter or testimony at a school board meeting. 

Writing or emailing individual school board members 

School board members typically have official email addresses with the school district. Letters, emails and phone calls can be a good way to communicate with them! Some sample letters are linked below: 
[Download]: Sample letter on free speech in schools 

Speaking at a school board meeting 

  • How do I know when school board meetings happen? School boards meet regularly to discuss issues and make decisions, typically at least once a month and typically on the same day or time (for example, the first Tuesday of the month at 7 p.m.). 
  • How do I learn what a school board will discuss at a meeting? Under Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act, school boards must publish their agendas at least 24 hours in advance. Most school boards publish their meeting schedules and agendas online: search for “[District Name] School Board” to find out when and where your school board will meet. 
  • Am I entitled to speak at a school board meeting? The law does not clearly require school boards to take public comment on every policy or issue, but most school boards provide the opportunity for public comment. Sometimes, a board will call for public comment about a particular proposal. Other boards offer general time for public comment about any issue the public wants to bring to the board’s attention. The board meeting agenda will tell you whether your school board has a general public comment period or not.  If there is a public comment period, prepare 2-3 points you’d like to make and plan to speak for about 2-5 minutes. 
  • Can I bring others to a school board meeting? If you are going to a school board meeting, bring along as many other parents, students and community members as you can! Not everyone needs to speak; just being there will let the board members know you care. Plan a carpool, share child care responsibilities or meet for dinner ahead of time so you can all make it there together. 

3. Using Media and Social Media  

Sometimes, school board members are more likely to make change if a large group of people are pushing for it.  In that case, media and social media can be strong tools to help you connect with others interested in the same issue and work together to push for change. 

Using social media 

Social media can be an effective tool to connect with other parents and community members who care about these issues. You can start a Facebook page to post articles and host discussion about these issues, tweet about free speech in schools, or participate in other groups.   

Using traditional media 

You can also bring attention to your issue by publishing a guest editorial or letter to the editor in your local newspaper.